Bowling for butter chicken, ribs & wings

Bowling for butter chicken, ribs & wings
They come with really good chips and are not particularly ‘chewy’ at all. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

There’s been a growing interest in lawn bowls but banish thoughts of the fuddy-duddy bowlers and greens of yesteryear. Today’s bowlers are often biased towards the food that’s on offer, with bowling just a bit on the side.

For a while I wondered why the Zoo Lake bowling club was better known for its liver and onions than for its bowls. It was round about then that I heard that a Melville neighbour, Lochner de Kock, was doing some cheffing at another bowling club, the Auckland Park one, which is not in Auckland Park. This last, in itself, was a clue I missed at the time. 

Lochner has a name in food. So the bowling club was taking their meal offerings seriously enough to have him, not as an actor, musician or radio host, but as a “koskenner”, as he labels himself modestly. Yes, he knows about and cooks food as in his books, Kok in die Sop and From the South African Kitchen as well as on his YouTube shows. Until the Covid time he put in many hours at that bowling club kitchen and I’ve heard the food was outstanding. I also see online that they are starting to get the food part of the club going again. It was obviously a good idea.

I started wondering about the food of bowling clubs. Online I see ads from various bowling clubs advertising for the young to start playing. Worldwide, the sport’s image is older and less diverse than other sports. In Australia the idea has been for food to attract new and younger players to bowling clubs. In South Africa food seems to have overtaken the plot where there are kitchens at bowling clubs because food is certainly attracting people to bowling clubs but not for the woods.

It seems obvious to me that bowling clubs were located specifically to attract the most likely spenders. Nowadays they need not even be bowlers. The clubs need not even be located in the suburb of the name of the bowling club, like the Auckland Park one that’s really in Montgomery Park and the Dunkeld Bowls Club in Rosebank. They’re located for attractiveness. These attractive locations also make great restaurant locations.

The kitchen at the Dunkeld Bowls Club, as I’ll find when I get there, is marketing itself with and also independently of the club. That’s interesting in terms of focus. The one at Greenside, the Pirates Bowling Club, seems to work semi-independently too.

The Zoo Lake Bowls Club appears to have the least to do with formal bowls tournaments and such players of the three I am visiting. And lots to do with well-made food and generating its own new consumers. 

I have to emphasise I am visiting all three to see and even experience some of their food offerings. All three food enterprises are managed independently but the properties are owned by the city. My opinions are based on my own observations being made during this exploration process. Is eating taking over from bowling at these ideal, usually scenic venues?

Members of staff or crew, as they’re called at Zoo Lake, all able bowlers themselves and all young. They persuade me to drink a ginger mojito “for fun”, along with the short ribs I choose from the specials of the day. The menu advises that they can be “slightly chewy but flavourful”.  The waiter warns me, “They’re a bit chewy, hey?”

They come with really good chips, are flavourful and not particularly chewy at all. My fun drink is in a Consol jar with straw and tastes of real stem ginger. The table next to me, an all-girl group of five, is a-bristle with straws in Consol jars. The blithe chat is of Covid victims they’ve known, and which jabs they’ve all had and how they had them. They seem to be here to see the Lions rugby team play bowls. They’re having burgers and pizzas with their Consol cocktails and seem to have had a few. 

I see one of the burgers in closeup and I’m impressed. I suppose I’m surprised because, even though the offering is kind of steakhousy in format, the quality of the food is almost unnecessarily better than those I’ve ever frequented. The Zoo Lake club is where the liver and onions, fish and chips, and sausage and chips were once the draws, not so much for their quality as for their prices, along with inexpensive beer though a poor choice of wine. I am curious to meet the current chef, Isaac Thloaele, who’s originally from North West, hecticly busy in his all-day kitchen, with his own strict set of dish creation principles. 

Chef Isaac Thloaele has his own strict set of dish creation principles. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Even in its previous existence, the majority of people who came to eat at this club had nothing to do with bowls, though it was played at league level on the greens. People in white would go to the bar afterwards, since the attractive outside area was taken up by others. An even younger crowd would arrive in the evenings for more noisy play that was also not bowls and not liver and onions. 

All over the world, bowls has been, and not changed much from being, a white sport. Here, free lessons are offered, and there are no club fees.

Zoo Lake’s green is kept fairly busy with team building bowls-playing and fun days. Forty Lions rugby team members wearing funny, non-rugby outfits arrive in twos and threes to the delight of the table alongside. One wears a blue tutu over his shorts and a pair of matching gossamer wings.

A rugby player with a plastic nose and eyebrows exclaims to another, “No that’s 10-pin bowls. This is all different.”  

One of the rugby Lions wears a blue tutu and wings. (Photo: Marie-lais Emond)

The next day a friend in this ’hood and I tuck into Zoo Lake Bowls Club’s buffalo wings and a grilled half-chicken with chips and salad. It’s not food I normally get to eat so it’s a kind of treat and more so for being faultless. Chef Isaac makes all sauces, rubs, marinades, everything except the basic ingredients himself. That’s probably what does it.

On a different day’s patio I overlook two greens from the restaurant of Pirate’s Bowls Club in Greenside. It’s aptly called The Green Room.

This has the kind of menu again that has to keep a lot of people happy and I wonder how many are bowlers. There are two outdoor areas. I saw no bowlers there but there was a friendly game under way on the green nearest the other outdoor space. 

Lawn bowls is facing issues other than race in the world. At its most internationally popular in the 70s and 80s among retirees and their sometimes younger associates, it is easy to see why a third fewer players are now available 40 years later. It needs a lot of younger people if it is to regain popularity. I am beginning to see that restaurant goers are replacing players but does it necessarily help with attracting any players?

It is plain that mums and their friends and all their children are the main eaters at The Green Room. The garden is full of jungle gyms and permanent kids’ equipment. The ambient sound is trundling plastic motorbikes. The menu has sections for kiddies, more interesting than usual.

Butter chicken with garlic butter flatbreads. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

To be sure there are pizzas, burgers and wraps on the main menu but there are also Scotch eggs for breakfast and butter chicken with garlic butter flatbreads in among more predictable items. Someone cares enough that the hake is fried in soda batter to mention it on the menu. That someone is Fiona Cooper who opened The Green Room with Kendra Callow. They’d both been pastry chefs at the Saxon before being laid off. An apple and blueberry strudel dessert suddenly seems more relevant than before. Inside the restaurant, more than a clubhouse, are those ever-enticing glass domes over baked cakes and scones. 

Inside the restaurant, more than a clubhouse, are those ever-enticing glass domes. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It seems that this is much more local restaurant than bowling club and the eaters are not bowlers as far as I can see. The latter are certainly older than the restaurant goers. 

There are easily 300 people at the Dunkeld Bowls Club, and there seem to be three birthday parties involved, with balloons and much inexpensive beer. Cojo’s Portuguese Grill is part of the club only to the extent that major events involve the restaurant but Cojo’s can easily also go it alone with numbers like this.

I’m with a Dutch friend who comes here regularly for his prawns and has absolutely no interest in lawn bowls. These prawns are excellent and fearsome value for money. 

These prawns are fearsome value for money. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

We also try a couple of Portuguese snacks, hot chouriço and Portuguese chicken livers. It is unfair to make comparisons, especially as there are 300 mouths to feed here versus 30 under chef Isaac at Zoo Lake but the latter’s food has more chance of getting people to join the club, as it were. However, Cojo’s is exceptionally popular. It must be said it is in the perfect spot, really in Rosebank, at the far end of a beautiful park.

Though there is a real tournament match taking place, another follows it where people are dressed in tutus. I am reminded of Zoo Lake again.

Where there are the option and facilities, bowling spots very easily morph into food spots. They’re probably here to stay. The locations are usually rather attractive and outdoorsy. The new food offerings might not do much for the game itself at bowling clubs but they must be doing plenty for their bottom lines. DM/TGIFood

Zoo Lake Bowls Club, Prince of Wales Drive, Zoo Lake. 011 486 0843  

The Green Room at Pirates East, 4 Cruden Bay Rd, Greenside. 084 660 0166

Cojo’s at Dunkeld Bowls Club, 15 Hume Rd, Rosebank. 010 023 1141 15

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food ‘rescued’ from the food chain. Please support them here


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